Sunday, 5 October 2014

The stew that dreams are made of

Chow Chow (Chayote) Kootu

For someone who unvaryingly saved pea shells to make soup and dried orange peels to make herbal tea and shampoo, Aai was quite impetuous.  At times like this, the idiosyncratic artist in her surfaced - pushing aside the housewife. Thrift and caution were thrown to wind.

One summer, her two best friends from college arrived in Hyderabad enroute to Pondicherry. They arrived in the morning by train from Mumbai and were to catch the afternoon train to Madras. In these few hours, the three reminisced about their youth and laughed uproariously remembering how they had mocked at hopeless Romeos and taught fitting lessons to boisterous boys. They even managed to swap horror stories of in-laws while still commiserating with the one friend who led a particularly unhappy un-married life.

Sometime during this marathon morning, someone mooted that Aai should accompany the two on their onward journey to their destination and literally within two hours Aai managed to convince Baba, get him to pull a few strings and get her a reservation in the same compartment as her friends, pack a small back, give instructions to the maid to braid my long hair every morning while she was gone, and before long, she was away on a quixotic adventure with her friends.

I must confess I was a bit sad that I wasn’t allowed to tag along. But you know how we actually like it when adults go away for a while? The excitement and novelty of being home alone most of the day saw me through the next few days.

In hindsight, I look at these few impulsive trips Aai made as her time out. She needed to be away from the routine and shackles of thrift and prudence and just be her own self.

Perhaps that is why those trips became larger than life for her and as a result for the whole family. We don’t quite remember Baba’s trips, but Aai’s trips are still vivid in our memories.

Or is it because she forgets she has recounted the events so many times to us and tells the stories with equal vigour and joy each time?!

Sigh… that’s another note for my “what not to do when I grow old” list…

Aai’s return was equally eventful, when Aai unpacked beautiful gifts of hand made paper, fragrance sticks, hand printed fabrics and unraveled stories of their revelry from the time they boarded the train to the serene and peaceful sojourn they had at the Auroville. And could any account of one’s travels be complete without a description of the food one had eaten? 

We got to know about the almost sci-fi kitchen at Auroville.  The humongous cauldron of a cooker, the assembly line operations, the ascetic atmosphere of the silent dining hall, the  mechanised and sanitary and disciplined conditions in which the most simple but delicious meals were prepared and served in those kitchens were stuff that even Aldous Huxley would have envied.

That was the first time I had heard of whole meal bread, oat porridge and stew outside of books, and the first I had heard of Chow Chows. The one dish that was committed to my memory was the Chow Chow Kootu or Banglore Baingan stewed in coconut milk.

The dish as Aai described it was soothing to the palate as it was to the gut, silky smooth with the squash and coconut milk. It had a hint of spices, but nothing that would detract from its mildness. It was the epitome of satvic food.

I have often wondered how the dish was made and even tried umpteen times to make a Chow Chow dish closest to the one of my dreams, but to no avail.

The Chow Chow stewed on in my fantasy for more than four decades, until some intrepid impulsiveness that I had inherited from Aai- I suppose, provided a lead quite unexpectedly.

When Sumeet Nair asked for volunteers to taste test some recipes for a Chettinad Cook Book he was writing/compiling, I put up my hand quite recklessly.

Hadn’t I overlooked the heart/ gut /whatnot burns I had suffered after a rare meal at a Chettinad restaurant?  Didn’t I know that Chettinad cuisine includes meat, fish and poultry?

More importantly, did I have it in me to cook a dish exactly as per the recipe? I am notorious for experimenting, customising, substituting… did I have it in me to be so fussily faithful to the recipe?

I surprised myself and the family when my mise en place included 4 fresh green chillies, slit in half lengthwise and 2 dried red chillies.

More surprising was the indescribably flavourful product – this is the stew that my dreams were made of.

Chow Chow (Chayote) Kootu
Recipe Copyright ©The Bangala Table: Flavors and Recipes from Chettinad

Everyone loves this here. It’s mild, creamy, light and overall delicious. The chow chow at The Bangala comes in fresh from Kodaikanal high up in the Western Ghats.

3 chow chow (about 500 grams), peeled and chopped in to ½-inch cubes
½ heaping cup (about 65 grams) washed and hulled moong dal
½ medium (about 50 grams) onion, finely chopped
4 fresh green chillies, slit in half lengthwise
1½ teaspoon sea salt or to taste

¼ cup vegetable oil
2 dried red chillies, mild, preferably goondu milagai
1¾ teaspoon urad dal, hulled and split
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon ghee
12 curry leaves

½ cup thick coconut milk, 1st press

1. Submerge diced chow chow in water so it does not discolor.
2. Rinse dal well 2 to 3 times till the water runs clear, cleaning carefully to remove any stones or debris. Add dal to a large saucepan with 3 cups of water and bring to a boil. Then let simmer, covered, for about 20 minutes or until the dal is creamy and cooked. Alternatively, if using a pressure cooker to cook the dal, add only 2 cups of water, seal the lid of the pressure cooker and place on high heat. After the first whistle, reduce heat to low and simmer for about 5 minutes. Set aside to cool before opening the lid.
3. In a medium saucepan over high heat, add 1 cup water, onions, green chillies, and drained chow chow. Boil for 3 minutes, covered, before adding salt and letting cook another 2 minutes with the lid on.
4. Add the cooked dal to the chow chow mixture and stir well. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to let kootu simmer for 7 to 9 minutes.
5. For the tempering, add oil to a small kadhai or wok over high heat. When hot but not yet smoking, slide in the red chillies, urad dal, cumin, ghee, and curry leaves, being careful of the splattering oil. Stir quickly and pour it over the kootu.
6. Return kootu to heat and add coconut milk, mixing well to combine. Stir occasionally for about 2 minutes. Consistency should be like a thick stew.
7. Remove from heat and serve.

Cooks note: While the type of dal can be varied in other kootu’s, only washed and hulled moong dal is used for chow chow kootu.


  1. Shruti, my Love

    A small variation on this theme. I grind the tempering ingredients with grated coconut/copra, if you don't have fresh coconut. Fresh coconut requires roasting, gives out such a sweet, heady flavor; less oil, naturally. Add the paste to the cooked dal+chayote. You might have tried it already.


Welcome weary web wanderer!
I hope you have found whatever you were looking for!
I would love to know what you thought of my recipes and posts- so why don't you drop a line?!